One lesser known story of a pilot that did just that, is of Colin Hodgkinson. As a lowly Midshipman in the Fleet Air Arm, Colin embarked on his flying career through elementary pilot training on the De-Havilland Tiger Moth. For Colin, his nemesis throughout training was learning to fly on instruments. This meant having to pull a canvas hood over his cockpit to simulate flying at night or in cloud with no reference to the horizon. Colin found this very claustrophobic and required extra tuition to iron out his problems. It was on one of these extended instrument training flights that lead to a potential shortening of his career.
On the 12 May 1939, Colin took off, accompanied by his instructor, and was practising blind flying on instruments under ‘the hood’ when disaster struck. At 1620hrs the Tiger Moth was struck by another aircraft and fell to the earth from 500ft. The instructor was killed and Hodgkinson left badly injured. One eye witness of the crash, Tony Phelps commented, “a few of us were standing on the airfield watching the plane Colin was in. We could see from the course the planes were taking that a crash was inevitable. Another chap and I jumped into my car and we rushed over. Wreckage was spread everywhere. We managed to drag Colin out and did what we could until the proper rescue squads arrived. I can tell you I never thought he would live, much less fly”.
Colin was taken to Gravesend hospital where he underwent a double amputation – right leg above the knee and left leg below it. During the winter of 1939, he was still convalescing as his left leg would not heal. It was during this time that he read a story of Douglas Bader who had under-gone a double amputation following a flying accident. He managed to convince the powers that be that he could return to flying.
Although Colin almost loathed flying, Bader's story inspired him and he wrote to him. The response was encouraging and Colin was determined to return to flying despite the fact that he wasn't a natural pilot. He approached the surgeons to amputate the remaining left leg that was not healing so that he could start the process of getting back to flying with prosthetics, as Douglas Bader had done. By Christmas 1940, he could walk perfectly well with his artificial limbs and was determined to go on flying. He joined RNVR and went on several flights, including a trip to Brest as a rear gunner. In 1941, the admiralty posted him to elementary school which he completed and was promoted to sub lieutenant and passed on to intermediate flying training school where he qualified as a pilot. Colin was not satisfied with this and wanted to go into action so applied for a transfer to the RAF which was granted. In September 1942, he transferred to the RAF as a pilot and on the 19th of that month, flew a Spitfire for the first time at RAF Aston Down.
His first post was with Squadron 131, a Spitfire unit at RAF Westhampnett that at the time was under command of Squadron Leader John Fifield. Fifield thought that as Hodgkinson had artificial legs he may have needed some allowances made for him with regards to distance to his aircraft from his dispersal and also in location of his accommodation. From the start Colin wanted no special treatment, Fifield commented,